Are American elections broken? White House panel proposes fixes.

In an attempt to deal with long voting lines and inaccurate voter registration lists in 2012, a presidential commission suggested a variety of reforms Wednesday.

Joe Skipper/Reuters/File
Voters line up at the Supervisor of Elections office in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 5, 2012. A presidential panel has proposed voting reforms to make lines shorter.

Guidelines to make voting more accessible were released Wednesday, but they are not binding, which leaves election reform advocates worried that the recommendations may be difficult to implement.

President Obama commissioned the report in March 2013, seeking solutions to the laundry list of problems revealed in the presidential election cycle the previous year: lines lasting for hours outside polling places, inaccurate voter registration lists, and hazards in counting overseas ballots, to name a few.

The 112-page report by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration offers the most comprehensive recommendations to date on ways to make voting easier and more equitable. The proposals are an attempt to address the increasingly fractured voting landscape, streamlining the mechanics of voting and the registration process so that regulations are the same in every state.

“This report is honing in on the inconsistency of election administrations across the country, [which has gotten] to the point that where you live determines whether your vote will count on Election Day,” says Jocelyn Benson, director of the Michigan Center for Election Law at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit.

Many of these problems are decades old but have not been fixed despite similar reports, she says. The White House cannot force states to adopt the measures without congressional action, and it has no ability to monitor Election Day reforms in real time.

The recommendations include: 

  • Expanding online voting registration to improve voter roll accuracy.
  • Expanding mail balloting or early voting before Election Day, and improving military and overseas voting access.
  • Greater reliance on schools as polling sites.
  • Updating voting technology and integrating voter data collected from Departments of Motor Vehicles with state election office lists.
  • Making sure that no voter should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote.
  • Creating uniform training standards by state.
  • Auditing voting equipment after each election with full public disclosure of the results.

Many election reform advocates are cheering the report’s recommendations. They are “a significant advance in the way we think about voting,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.

“The commission makes clear that there are achievable, bipartisan reforms that can be implemented now to transform voting.… It recognizes that we can’t fix long lines until we first fix our outdated voter registration system,” Mr. Waldman said in a statement.

An online voter registry is critical to reform, advocates say, because it expands voter access.

Rock the Vote, an advocacy group based in Washington, told the commission that it has developed online registration tools over two decades and is making them available for free to state elections administrators.

Nineteen states have functioning online voter-registration systems, and five are pledging to add the technology by 2016, says Amanda Brown, national political director for Rock the Vote. She says that expanding the technology is necessary because some states, such as Texas, are passing restrictions on voting registration, which require voters to produce a state-approved form of photo identification to vote. This makes it harder for minorities, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor to vote, she and others say.

“What we’ve seen over the last two or more years is some states have been taking aggressive measures to cut back on opportunities to vote,” says Ms. Brown. “The fact that states have tried to block the vote in such egregious ways has made it harder to push forward” on reform measures of the past.

Advocates of voter ID laws say the laws help prevent voter fraud, though studies on the issue have not found significant fraud.

Some advocates worry that the new recommendations will suffer the same fate as similar reports published following past election cycles.

“You’re asking those elected in the current system to change the game that they have already won,” says Professor Benson of Wayne State. “So the commission report is helpful because it hones in on specific changes that need to happen, but without an external push, history teaches us we are unlikely to see a lot of change.”

Mr. Obama said Wednesday that his administration intends to “publicize” the findings and “then reach out to stakeholders all across the country to make sure that we can implement this.”

The recommendations, including online tools and best practices, are available on the commission’s website,, which is curated by the Caltech-MIT Voting Project.

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